The narrator and protagonist, Ned Begay, is fictional, but the main events in the book really happened. Blaine and I both enjoyed learning more about this little-known piece of history.
The book is presented as a story told by Ned as an old man: “Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war.”
He then goes back to his childhood. He left home at age six to attend a state-run boarding school where he was forced to cut his hair and required to speak only English. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was fourteen years old and too young to fight, but two years later, he joined the Marines. After boot camp, he was sent to code school to learn a code based on the Navajo language. He and his fellow Navajo code talkers played a key role in many battles in the Pacific theater, including on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. After the war, he returned home and became a teacher, but for many years, he was not allowed to tell anyone about his work as a code talker.
Bruchac says in the Author’s Note that the book “can be read as a parable about the importance of respecting other languages and cultures.” Some of the most interesting parts of the book are its explorations of the differences between Navajo, white American, and Japanese cultures.